Guns and votes

September 17, 2002

An editorial yesterday should have said Congressman Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. voted for, not against, a bill to repeal a ban on assault weapons. The Sun regrets the error.

WHEN GOP Congressman Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called for a review of some Maryland gun laws, he opened himself to attack by those who believe he's carrying water for the National Rifle Association and others averse to gun control.

His opponent in the race for governor, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and a chorus of Democrats quickly declared Mr. Ehrlich out of step with mainstream Maryland.

If by review Mr. Ehrlich actually means rollback, his critics are right. Over the last 14 years, Maryland governors, members of the General Assembly and voters have approved a succession of tougher gun control laws. There's no indication the state wants any of these measures repealed.

Mr. Ehrlich's campaign sought to control any damage by saying he meant only to suggest a kind of good-government examination of the gun laws to find the ones that work and to dismiss costly efforts that don't.

Fair enough. Still, we find the congressman's initiative curious. Why didn't he renew his call for more stringent federal action against gun violence? He's been a proponent of Project Exile, a program that has helped reduce the murder rate in Richmond, Va. Instead, critics say, Mr. Ehrlich allowed his true colors to shine through.

The congressman's votes make him an inviting target for Ms. Townsend. He voted in 1996 against a bill that would have repealed a 1994 law banning assault weapons. That effort would have lifted a ban on the manufacture and sale of military-style assault weapons. Here, legislative review would have meant rollback.

In 1999, Mr. Ehrlich supported a bill that would have required private gun dealers to get background checks on the criminal and mental health of buyers at gun shows. The bill ultimately died. House members who wanted real gun control voted no because the bill had become a sham. Moderate Republican Connie Morella of Montgomery County joined the opponents. Mr. Ehrlich voted yes.

What is needed now is new thinking on how to control gun violence from both campaigns. Maryland's ban on many cheap Saturday night specials, extraordinary when it was passed and credited by health researchers with saving many lives, is mocked on the streets today where killers arm themselves with high-tech, high-cost weapons.

If a review of Maryland's gun laws would yield a more effective approach to controlling gun violence, it poses no threat. If the objective is to repeal or roll back these laws, it's misguided at best.

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